Friday, February 24, 2012

Book Review: Celtic Myth & Religion

McFarland Publishers; isbn 9780786464760

Celtic Myth and Religion is an effort to summarize what is presently known, surmised and guessed about pre-Christian Celtic religion, and “indigenous religious traditions of the Celtic-speaking peoples, from the first millennium B.C.E. to the early modern era”. MacLeod does a fine job of it, combining summary recitations of facts with speculative efforts in a balanced and reasonable way. This book deserves an immediate place on the shelves of those interested in the topic.

The book amounts to 200 pages of closely-set text, and there is plenty of straight repetition of lore in the first sections. The first part provides the basics from describing the sources to general summaries of the Celtic ideas of the Otherworld, and the place of Druid, poets and seers. The tales and mythic figures of Britain, Gaul and Ireland get a very fast yet detailed summary. This is accomplished in some 60 pages, so it isn’t done in depth. This book is really a primer, and also a wonderful guide to using the indexes of other books.

The author is likely to be a Celtic Pagan of some sort, though she doesn’t out herself in the text. She says immediately that she intends to view the material as the sacred tradition of a people, due as much deference as an anthropologist today would give any tribal system. Throughout she is willing to refer to the gods and spirits in reverential terms. She doesn’t hesitate to assume that some folkloric and literary descriptions of Otherworld visions preserve elements of pre-Christian heritage. The very good news is that while she freely makes the same kind of statements about Celtic lore that we are accustomed to hearing from modern Pagans, each statement is footnoted. Thirteen pages of footnotes and a nine-page bibliography provide all the background the scholastic set might need.

Part two is given to “Celtic Shamanism and Wisdom Traditions.” Yeah, whatever. I’m over being upset about writers using ‘shamanism’ where I might use ‘magic’ or ‘sorcery’. There *are* interesting parallels between Altaic shamanism and some of the methods described for Irish mages. The fact is that the chapters in this section, covering such things as magical flight and vision, three-worlds cosmology and plant and animal symbolism are excellent summaries of Celtic lore, whatever general term one applies to the magic-working of the Druids. MacLeod provides a useful summary of ogham going so far as to propose her own understanding of divinatory meanings, after discussing the controversy over ogham divination.

The third part of the book deals with several complexes of Celtic lore, including the Arthurian and Mabinogion material. There are chapters on the Ancestors and on the Fairies, and two very useful chapters on the seasonal calendar and customs. The first appendix, on the “Rights of Women in Early Celtic Culture” is surely best short summary of an often disputed topic that I’ve seen. The second appendix offers new translations of several Gaelic and Welsh verses, and the third provides a comprehensive booklist in a more readable format than the scholastic bibliography.

It’s been some while since there was news this good for those interested in Celtic polytheism. MacLeod has assembled in one volume most of what there is to know about pre-Christian Celtic religion, accessibly and concisely. Her work deserves to be on the shelf of everyone learning or teaching the Old Celtic Ways.